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The Sour Beer Spectrum

Confused by the wide variety of sour beer styles and the variety of methods used to brew them? Tom Wilmes breaks through the jargon with this guide to sour beer styles.

Tom Wilmes Oct 31, 2016 - 11 min read

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A professional brewer friend once told me that, for him, the American sour-beer renaissance has been like being confined to a brewhouse his entire life, knowing no different, and then throwing open a window to glimpse a bright, wild, vibrant world filled with possibility and ripe for exploration. And yet many beer drinkers, having tried a sour or three, tend to limit their expectations to a very narrow view.

In reality, sours are a broad-reaching category that encompasses a breadth of styles and brewing techniques—from historic lambics and other traditional Belgian and German brews to today’s Wild West of experimental sours and wild ales—as well as a wide range of flavors and intensity.

The Science of Sour

Many sour beers are fermented, in full or in part, using a strain of Brettanomyces. Brettanomyces, or Brett for short, is a wild cousin of domesticated brewer’s yeast that was first discovered growing on fruit skins. Winemakers consider it a spoiling agent and go to great lengths to keep it from contaminating their cellars, but sour-beer brewers have embraced it. It’s especially good at chopping up long chains of sugars that Saccharomyces won’t eat and converting those sugars into alcohol and CO2. Brett also imparts a wide range of esters and phenols—often described as earthy, fruity, musty, or funky depending on the specific strain used. These rustic, wild flavors go a long way toward giving sour beers their character, but _Brett _isn’t what makes a beer sour.

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